Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in India and went to the US for my undergrad. My senior year of college coincided with 9/11, which was followed by a terrorist attack in India, then followed by the US bombing Afghanistan. Both the US and India seemed to have a lot of conflict going on, and I was most likely going to go on to work in a consulting firm or investment bank. It just seemed like the world was on fire and something had to be done — what good would it do for me to work in a private management consulting firm? That was when I made the decision at 22 to go work in the social sector in social impact.
I eventually started working in India for an international social enterprise called Ashoka, then went back to the US to do my Masters at Harvard’s Kennedy School. I continued working for Ashoka in Washington DC. That was about 10 years.
Around that time, people started asking me how they could get a job in the social sector. I found that more and more people wanted to do social impact work, but most universities were not adequately preparing people for these types of careers. There seemed to be a gap. We felt one way to fill that gap would be to take a different type of approach to a Masters education — something that was much more hands-on and skills-based. That’s what led us to leave our jobs, move to Nairobi, and set up Amani Institute.
How do you define “social innovation”?
Social innovation, as we define it, is a way to democratize the ways that people can have an impact in the world. When we started, all the focus was on social entrepreneurship, which implies you have to start an organization. We felt that there was so much scope and need for people to make innovation happen inside of organizations, or even in their neighborhoods. We saw innovation as a more inclusive term and a way of thinking about making an impact, making something better, and doing something new.
As we look at it, social innovation consists of three things:
- Doing something new, something different than what already exists
- Making the world better than the existing reality, improving the status quo
- Generating value that is primarily directed at improving society at large, or a large group of people, and not a specific individual or small group of individuals
How does social innovation relate to what is typically called “sustainability”?
There was a shift in focus around 10 years ago to what is often called Human-Centered Design. Someone pointed out to me that this is nice, but humans are also responsible for destroying the planet. If we make everything human-centered we may be losing out on some things as well. Shouldn’t it be called Sustainability-Centered Design or Planet-Centered Design? That really struck me as something worth thinking about.
To me, “sustainable design” means taking the planet into account as a stakeholder when making design choices.
I teach your 4-day BioEmpathy course, which kicks-off the immersion phase of your 6-month Social Innovation Management program. I sometimes describe Bio-Empathy as the application of biomimicry principles to social innovation. It reflects elements of both our program’s Creative Leadership course and Biomimetic Design course. How did you come to include Bio-Empathy in your program?
When we approach social innovation, we ask how can you think differently about solutions to the problems facing us? Thinking differently also implies that you don’t necessarily know where you’re going when you get started. To help send this message, we start the immersion phase of the program by taking people out of the city into a beautiful natural environment — they don’t know where they are going when we head off. This way we get everyone — people who have come from all over the world — on the same page.
We also recognize through biomimicry that nature is the ultimate innovator. Learning how nature designs, and applying that to social innovation, is a great way to begin. Also, because biomimicry is relatively new, particularly its application to social impact, we are sharing this sense of something brand new and unknown. It reinforces this message of exploration.
Also, when I was reading the book Biomimicry, there was this great scene where she was lying on her back looking up at the stars, and for me the lightbulb went off. For her and others practicing biomimicry, they first start with this great love for nature — almost an awe or reverence. That seemed to me to be the starting place. You can’t understand the way nature innovates without first having a deep connection to nature yourself. That is when we put the element of bio-empathy into the program.
Social innovation is about making change in the world. What do you or your students feel after graduating or being in this field?
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned working in the field is that impact is really difficult. The world is as it is for a reason. If you want to change the status quo, then you’d better expect resistance. There are people who are benefitting from the way things are, who may not agree with you about what needs to change, or who will lose out when things change. They will not allow the change to happen very easily. If you believe you want to change something, then you’ve got to expect that resistance. We have social challenges that have been with us for millenia. It’s not easy to change the world, and it’s not going to happen with some new technology that you can just deploy and scale. The technology is the easy part. It’s the behavioral change on the ground that’s the really challenging part.
For that reason, we need to think differently about how we’re going to make change, how we relate as ourselves to the world in a different way.
It’s a slow process, often two steps forward, one step back. Things like Coronavirus can come out of the blue and destroy your plans for the year. It requires patience, it requires resilience, it requires unswerving optimism. You need to build your ability to maintain these over the long run. You need a personal strategy for maintaining optimism in a world that may reward the cynical a bit more. You need a strategy for staying fresh and being able to think differently in a world that may try to make you conform to the status quo.
As an institute, you instill a set of core values in your Fellows. What are those core values?
We have five core values at Amani Institute. They are vision, courage, empathy, change-making, and a global mindset. These are words you’ve heard before, but we have specific definitions of them. We weave these core values in everything we teach and everything we do.
What is your perspective on the future of rural life? Everyone is fleeing for the cities, yet we have some technologies that could be transformational for those living in rural areas.
This points to a larger question about how we want to organize as people, which is very clearly connected to sustainability. It’s paradoxical that, particularly in developing countries where the majority of the population lives, people don’t want to be farmers anymore. They don’t want their children to be farmers, because it’s a really hard life. Those of us who live in the cities tend to romanticize it a bit. They’d rather have their children go to school, move to the city, and create a better life.
That said, it’s not like the cities are full of jobs or everyone. So people move to urban areas then end up in slums, which causes strain on urban resources. Yet at the same time, 80% of the world’s GDP comes from cities, 80% of innovation comes from cities, but 90% of the world’s energy consumption happens in cities. Where you live should be each individual’s choice, but we need to be sure that cities can accommodate these rising populations.
I also have an interest in wildlife conservation. The biggest threat in wildlife conservation is the encroachment of humans into wildlife territory. This suggests that the best thing we can do for wild animals is to get as many people into cities as possible and leave the wild spaces wild. So there are really big pros and cons on both sides.
Are there any aha moments or trends you’ve noticed in people that go through this process, when something in their thinking shifts?
The program is designed with several different elements, which includes going through a deep personal journey. We have many of these aha moments that happen for people at different times. For example, they might be applying what they learned in class to their innovation project or internship and realize that it is so much harder than they thought — that’s when the aha moment comes. Or it might come during their personal reflections, when they realize why something in their life or career has happened, and then where they want to take it.
What we see over time with people who have gone through the program is a mindset shift. They may not always be able to articulate it, but they know that they are doing things differently and are bringing a different lens into their next jobs or phase of their career. Alumni express that they are a really different person after going through the program. Their employers tell us that our alumni really bring something different and new than the rest of their team, and we really appreciate that.
Does working through problems contribute to that, especially when students are the ones initiating?
Yes. That is one of the most important things that needs to happen in higher education.
Rather than just learning about a problem and writing about it, you need to do something about it.
Adults learn by doing. 90% of what you learn comes from actually trying to do something about a problem. That’s when you realize what the real challenges are and how hard it is to make change on the ground. Working through problems should be the centerpiece of education, and it should be in a practical hands-on way.
I really connected with what you said about empathy. Children are naturally empathetic, which are the things we need most to tackle the world’s biggest problems, but our western narcissistic culture trains those things right out of us.
I was working in the US during the early Obama years. He talked a lot about empathy then. When he nominated his first Supreme Court judge, he used empathy as one of the factors in his decision. It was very striking to me that this was something people disagreed with. It was baffling that this was controversial.
There has been a lot of research on empathy, and several good books have been written. One foundational book is Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric.
It’s important to note that when it comes to decision-making, on a practical level, it is hard to know where empathy begins and ends. For instance, empathy for one individual might come at the cost or feeling of unfairness to another, or to the long-term health of the organization. Empathy for one community might cost us to lose a forest and it’s dwellers, and so on. Empathy doesn’t shelter you from the tough decisions, but it is necessary to be able to take good decisions.
What advice do you have for people like your Fellows and our students who are preparing themselves to fight the good fight?
Social change is a long road. Be patient with yourself, be patient with the organizations you work with, be patient with the world as well.
Take care of yourself. You need to manage your own ability to stay fresh. That might mean taking sabbaticals, or having a hobby or practice outside of your work. Have empathy for yourself.
Invest in your relationships. That’s what’s going to keep you going over the long term — and we need you to do your work over the long term. We call it “personal sustainability”.
Courage. You need to be able to stand up to power, stand up when things go wrong, stand up when others won’t or can’t. Be willing to take the risks that are required to change the status quo. This is the kind of courage needed on a day-to-day level, when making the small decisions. It includes having difficult conversations and changing your own habits.
Thank you Roshan!
[image courtesy of Amani Institute]